My career progressed to a new stage in 1973.
I was sent to Argentina in May following the election of Peronist Hector Campora, and with the return of Juan Peron himself expected shortly.
I witnessed Peron’s return to Ezeiza Airport in June 1973, which degenerated into confusion as Guevarist Monteneros fought with armed trades unionists.
September 1973 was a very busy month, with elections in Argentina and the developing crisis in Chile, which gave me my first big story.
Soon after that Buenos Aires was scaled down to me and a secretary. They did not always find enough for me to cover in Latin America and I was deployed elsewhere from time to time. Outside Latin America, I mainly covered stories from southern Africa.
I found the Johannesburg bureau was much busier than the Buenos Aires bureau.
From there, I reported on the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the former British colony of Rhodesia and on the settlement in 1978 when it became the new state of Zimbabwe.
Buenos Aires remained my base of operations. The “bureau” was an apartment in the district called San Telmo. I was there from the return of Juan Peron in 1973 through to the end of the Falklands War in 1982.
Buenos Aires became the centre of the world’s attention in 1982 when Argentina occupied the Malvinas or Falkland islands and Britain sent a task force to reoccupy them. Broadcasters from around the world arrived in large numbers.
Strange things happened in that war. One of them was that some of the generals had in effect become their own news agencies and were shooting video and selling to the broadcast networks. The reporting teams from the networks were desperate to get these videos and were willing to pay a lot of money for them.
I found one news organisation particularly interesting and quickly became friends with their two-man team. They were from the first ever 24-hour news channel.
With only two people on the ground, they needed help and I was able to help them. For example, while the networks were paying thousands of dollars for the generals’ videos, I knew the man who dubbed them and was able to persuade him to run off extra copies for a few hundred dollars.
They told me stories about their founder whom I will just call “Fred”. He was already a legend.
Now I knew where I wanted to go next.
I picked up the phone. Fred said: “You got it, pal.”
I had been there for five years already. I had seen him tearing through the offices. But we’d never got introduced.
Fred’s entrepreneurial flair, charm, drive, persistence, his sheer smarts, — and good timing — had been what made him the first to uplink a local TV station by satellite and download it to cable headends.
The cable companies loved him because it gave them a new source of content. They no longer had to rely exclusively on the old networks.
Against furious lobbying from the old networks the regulators had given him the go-ahead and in 1975 he had launched a station which relayed old films to cable channels around the country.
Then he added a sports service.
Then, five years later, he launched his 24-hour news channel.
I was hired by Reece Feldmann, the head of news who had put the news project together.
Then one day Reece walks back into the newsroom and tells us all: “The son of a bitch just fired me.”
A day later I got that call from Fred.
The first few years had been thrilling. The idea of continuous live coverage paid off when, in 1986, we were the only station to provide live television coverage of the launch and subsequent explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger which killed all seven crew members on board.
Following on from Reece’s determination to put new technology to work, we were buying “flyaway” portable satellite dishes and uplinking live reports while our competitors were still sending back footage on commercial flights.
We had made a commitment to cover any potential war from “ground zero”. At the onset of the 1991 Gulf War we figured that the Iraqi communication systems would soon be taken out. So we invested in a satellite phone, adding some $50,000 to our costs.
By that time I was News Editor.
“Spend what you think it takes, pal”, was Fred’s OK to Bill, the new CEO, someone I already knew. Bill had been the publisher of the West Coast paper that give me my first job. In 1990 Fred had chosen him as president of the news channel.
As the 1991 war started, Bill was under huge pressure, including from the White House, to get our people out of Iraq. They told us we would probably get our people killed.
Bill and Fred resisted the pressure. Our ratings rocketed. The big networks begged for our footage. Fred was on the cover of Time magazine as 1991 man of the year.
That was the year Julie died in Bryce Canyon.
By the mid 80’s Fred was spending a lot of time in Washington and New York.
He had married a famous actress.
The news operation was making money.
When Fred had given me the editor’s job, he’d said: “Get someone you trust to work alongside you.”
I chose Hugh.
Hugh had first come in as a baby-faced consultant on a team hired to help set up the news operation.
Within a week of being here, he said: “I want to work here. I love what is happening here. I think I can help.”
Hugh and I became close. He married in 1984. Our families became good friends. He helped me when Julie died.
Hugh let his hair grow and wore open-necked shirts. He too was passionate about what we were doing.
He also knew the budgets inside out and was very focussed on profitability. He said: “One day Fred will make a mistake. We can’t depend on him.”
I had never thought of that. But then I didn’t see it as my job to understand the financial basis of the company. Hugh, on the other hand, made himself an expert on every aspect of the company’s operations.
Every day in news is a big event. But the event that had the biggest impact on my career — and a big impact on my personal life — happened in 1998.
A young woman journalist said she had evidence of secret missions, armed with sarin gas, to eliminate US defectors during the Vietnam War which ended in 1975. In other words, she was saying she had evidence of plans to “neutralise” prisoners or defectors who were helping the enemy. She showed me her notes from an interview with a retired general. I set her to work and she got off-the-record corroboration from another retired senior office in the military.
She was diligent. I put her alongside a more experienced reporter. The story took a lot of of time and resources.
From the start Hugh raised questions about this story. He was, as ever, careful in the way that he did it.
He would ask for a chat, and say: “I’ve been thinking…” and then pose questions
“Is it our sort of story? Haven’t you always said we’re here to bear witness to what is happening on our planet now? Isn’t this something the Washington Post should be doing….?”.
I went ahead with the story and all hell broke loose. The retired general who had given the first interview denied it. Bill panicked and set up an external enquiry which found that our journalists had been “unfair”.
Fred made a histrionic apology: “It’s been the most horrible nightmare I ever lived through..”
Bill fired the journalists without consulting me. I resigned. “You don’t need to do this,” Hugh said.
As it happened the journalists both hired good lawyers and, over a period of years, won significant compensation. They were vindicated.
When I quit, Bill offered me a role as editor of a weekly entertainment segment. I took it. I had no other plan.
Hugh was upgraded to Managing Editor with the authority to hire my successor. His first appointment did not work out. Then he called me and asked me if I would return. I accepted.
I still do not understand what I did over the following months or why I felt the way I did.
In the news business you live on your nerves and every new day is a day with time to fill and nothing much to fill it with. It is not a reflective business.
But I was uncomfortable with Hugh’s new role. I asked him to stay out of editorial meetings. He said he could not do that.
I told Bill about this and he called us both in.
It was a terrible meeting. I said it just was not working for me. Hugh said he had always supported me 100% but that his role was essential and that he couldn’t take responsibility for the finances if he had no authority.
I have this picture of Hugh’s cotton shirt becoming dark with sweat as the long meeting went on. I had gone way past what I meant to say and was saying things better left unsaid.
Bill listened and then said: “You have to work together. You know each other well. But if you can’t, Hugh is the one who stays.”
I left. To this day I cannot understand why I had to do that.
Hugh had been a personal friend and the most important relationship in my adult life after Julie. He had always backed me. He was just as committed as I was to the idea of global news, to making the world, as far as we could, a place where brutality does not go unrecorded.
Hugh stayed with the company as it went through many changes. He became the chief executive of a major division, was well paid and had extensive stock options. He is now a wealthy man.
We had dinner once, about six years later. I had meant to say that I regretted what had happened and often wondered why I behaved as I did.
But as Hugh talked about the things he was doing now, I realised I now longer mattered to him any more. I was just a troublesome incident in his past.
I couldn’t find a way to say what I meant to say.
I had known just a few days after that terrible meeting that the best part of my career was over.